This was how her life was going to end – crawling on a floor amid dust and debris, her only hope of salvation an open window that looked more like a gaping maw into an abyss. One misstep and that was what it would become. She had already seen on of her coworkers fall. Someone else had jumped.
That would be horrible, she had thought as the shadow of that intern who had worked next to her assistant disappeared with a shriek and sunlight returned to Christina’s place on the floor. White light mixed with smoke and ash. She caught a glimpse of her hands: her vermillion-painted fingernails gleamed even as they were surrounded by blood and grime. Falling would only bring a quicker death than suffocation. Her precious little girl did not deserve to remember her mother as someone who was either a suicide (her Catholic conscience had apparently never deserted her at all) or someone silly enough to fall out of a window by accident. She did not want to die here in the hallway, but dying as a splat on the ground outside sounded no better. Her body jerked reactively at the thought of crashing into concrete below.
It would be better if Amelia remembered her mother as someone who spent the last minutes of her life trying to breathe and thinking of her.
Christina Wilkins’s eyes ran with tears and mascara, while her nose dripped with blood and dust caked her face in an ugly, sticky mess. She was barely recognisable, gasping for fresh air and straining to see daylight. Had Jessie made it down to the coffee shop in the mall? Had she made it outside? Was she safe? And why did that matter to Christina?
Someone has got to get out of here, she reasoned to herself. And I am still responsible for her – she is my employee, and I sent her on a whimsical errand that could have trapped her in an elevator or underground or…And was that better than being trapped up here with her?
Was her husband watching this on the news? She did not think that she had any more tears left, but more seemed to flow as she thought of Mark watching helplessly as she lay crouched in smoke and dust. If he could have, he would have flown up to the window and pulled her to safety. He would have not let her and their baby suffocate.
She had only recently grown used to the idea that she was having a second child. Despite the blood from her face, despite her gasping for air, and despite her terror at the prospect of being trapped in a poisonous inferno, the tiny creature within her still held on for dear life. For that, she was thankful. She did not want either of them to be alone.
We are not going to make it out of here, sweetheart, she whispered, trying to sound soothing. More tears managed to choke out of her. She muttered apologies to Amelia – her beautiful little girl was looking forward to seeing her after her first day of school. Christina had not even met her teacher. Amelia was not going to get the little brother or sister that she had been asking for since her third birthday. At least Christina had not told her. Losing her mother would be hard enough.
How stupidly busy her life had seemed. All that scrambling had led her to this smoke-engulfed, wavering tower.
You also could have died in a simple car accident, she told herself. You always did like to be dramatic about things.
She kept her eyes strained on the open window, which seemed to be getting further away and harder to see. Voicelessly, she sang a quiet lullaby, willing herself to focus on the faint sunlight and nothing else. Everything seemed blurry and white. Bits of clean air were fewer and farther between.
Her mother gave her a hug and kiss as she went off to school, just as she had Amelia that morning.
Her father held her tightly and squeezed her hand as he turned to walk her down the aisle.
Her husband pulled her into a deep, romantic kiss, from which neither of them ever wanted to let go.
Her little newborn daughter looked up at her with curious and adoring eyes.
Her niece screamed as holy water was poured over her head, dripping down over Christina’s arms.
Her assistant smiled at her and waved as she headed out of the office in her search for coffee and steamed milk with just the right mix of cinnamon and vanilla.
And then there was nothing but sunlight.
“Ten years ago, I was a little kindergartener whose Mommy gave me a hug and kiss, told me that she was proud of me, that she loved me, and that in honour of my first day of school, she would make me bunny pasta for dinner when she got home,” Amelia said, having finished her poem. The crowd listened attentively, many crying. “I never saw her again. I miss her very much. I love her. She never got to make me my bunny pasta, she’ll never get to take my picture in a graduation gown, and she’ll never get to cry at my wedding. But I know that she was proud of me and that she loved me. I am also blessed to have a wonderful dad, aunt, and uncle who were there for me when I was that five-year-old and have been there ever since. Dad had lost his wife in one of the worst ways, but he made sure to make me my bunny pasta and reassure me that he’d make sure things would be okay. Now, I have a stepmother who has given me two little brothers and a little sister.”
Sophia waved shyly to the crowd, prompting quite a few smiles.
“I hope that my little sister never has to go through what I did. I hope that her mommy lives for a long time and can be there for her like she was there for me. I hope that she can grow up in peace. I pray that we all can find peace in our lives now.”
Jessie KIovac-Gilchrist stared at Amelia Wilkins in awe. She was such a brave and dignified young woman! Despite having seen Facebook photos, Amelia had never grown much past five in Jessie’s mind. It was funny how that happened – how one could look at a photograph of a teenager and still imagine them to be a child, or at the image of a grade-schooler and still imagine them to speak in the halted syllables of a toddler. She supposed that the reverse was true for adults: no matter how old a person seemed to the eye, they remained the same when you encountered them in person. Her friends and family in New York had barely changed in a decade.
Her husband and daughters were further up from the memorial. Stella and Olivia were old enough to be excited about seeing the President of the United States and were undoubtedly playing with their binoculars. Their father had promised her that he would keep them occupied while she mourned alone. He could not bear to get closer to the memorial than the perimeter fencing, even after several business trips to New York in the past decade. If he ended up taking the twins for ice cream, it would likely because he needed to get away from the ceremony, not because of them. The last time that he had stood where she was, there had been fallen bodies and wreckage surrounding him. She had managed to get out of the complex shortly after the second plane had struck and was well away by the time that the towers had collapsed. She had not wanted to go initially, but police officers had prevented her from trying to return to work. Holding her small purse that contained her wallet (her large handbag having been left on her desk over ninety floors above) and a tray of four coffee cups, Jessie had followed the slowly growing crowd of people evacuating through the mall. She had tried to phone her office, but there had been no signal.
Wearing high-heeled shoes had made her trek difficult; balancing the paper tray of coffee cups had made it even moreso. Focusing on these two things had mercifully spared her from noticing the carnage until she was several blocks toward the Brooklyn Bridge. There, she stopped to take a third sip of her coffee and try to phone her office again, when she had turned around in horror to see that the top of her building was entirely invisible in smoke. She remembered vividly how she had not fully processed that information, because she had kept thinking of how she was going to apologise to her boss for not returning in a timely manner. Christina Wilkins was a patient woman, but she had badly wanted her steamed milk. She had insisted that it be from a specific shop in the mall, not from the staffroom. It was thanks to her and her odd cravings that had saved Jessie’s life, though Jessie had taken a very long time to process that. Standing in the street, leaning against a parked car, all the thoughts that had gone through her head were entirely pedantic: her other two co-workers had given her money to pick them up coffees, but she had both their money and their drinks and somehow that felt to her as though she had stolen from them; all of the drinks were getting cold; she had spilled some coffee on her hand and sleeve; her feet were killing her; she could not get through to anyone on her phone; she had left her handbag and jacket at her desk…
She was still thinking this myriad of thoughts when, halfway through a sip of coffee, her eyes caught a glimpse of the smoke cloud increasing as a dull roar got louder. The crowd around her began to shriek and many turned to start running again. It was Jessie’s last sip of coffee, for her cup splattered to the ground, and the taste of the drink would later only bring back the horrible memory of that day. If only to outrun the dust, she had started moving again, still clutching the tray with the three cold drinks. Retelling the story, she recalled that it was as though she thought that by not dropping their coffee, she could keep her boss and co-workers alive.
Eventually, she had given the cold, somewhat dusty coffees and steamed milk to others. Christina would not have minded donating her steamed milk to a woman with a toddler heading toward the bridge, Jessie had reasoned. Even a cold coffee was welcome relief. Despite wanting to go back toward her office and apartment, Jessie had soon found herself heading to Brooklyn as well, where one of her friends put her up for the night. They had sat in front of the television well into the evening, and though she was wrapped in blankets and her feet were soaking in a warm basin, her teeth had chattered incessantly.
Someone was going to be left from that office to mourn after the dust had settled, and she was still trying to figure out why that someone was Jessie Klovac. She had had nothing to live for. Christina Wilkins, meanwhile, had been married, a mother, and a successful professional.
Now that description applied to Jessie, but she still did not understand why. She had Stella and Olivia, but still had bouts of feelings as though she did not deserve them. They certainly did not deserve to have been born to her – she was so ridden with chronic depression that she had hired a nanny for her twins while she had still been on maternity leave. Even now that they were nearly seven years old, she was still calling sitters for them when she was too ill to move. Yes, she had explained more than once, she in fact did want someone to watch them while she sat virtually motionless in the garden. Her husband had built her a little gazebo in a vain attempt to keep rain off of her.
She was much better now, she reasoned, watching as Amelia stepped down from the podium into her father’s arms. Her depression was slowly coming under her control. For her daughters, their mother had always been a bit odd. As soon as they could, they had tried to help her. Their existence helped her immensely, and as children, they were excellent doctors. Stella had mastered the kettle and Olivia had mastered boiling water in a pot (having to outdo her sister), much to Jessie’s surprise. She had been so startled to receive a hot cup of tea when she knew no other adults were home that she had been instantly roused from her depression episode. Between her daughters and her husband – who was battling his own powerful demons – she was hardly spending long hours in the gazebo anymore. Thank God, she whispered.
The rest of her trip to New York was wonderful. Robert wanted to ensure that they had a pleasant vacation and experienced as much of the city as possible. He did not want his daughters (who were thoroughly British) to think of their mother’s hometown as being nothing but a big memorial site. They went to museums and shows, Central Park (the zoo being a noteworthy stop), and went to as many of Jessie’s favourite food outlets as they could.
But seeing Amelia and her family, and later introducing them to her own little girls, reminded Jessie that there were more than ghosts who remained. For all that they were haunted, they were alive.
And there would be plenty more life ahead.
Oh come angel band,
Come and around me stand,
Oh bear me away on your snow-white wings,
To my immortal home.